Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, has recently declared that the cultural sector is in “rude health” and that complaints about the way in which the government is suffocating funding for the sector are overblown. According to Vaizey, any talk of a crisis is “rubbish” and “the arts in the UK are waving, not drowning.”

I would agree – much of the arts in the UK is in rude health. But, I would argue that this has almost nothing to do with his government’s policies or funding. Rather, it has come as a result of decades of support. Indeed, as many in the creative industries will attest, the strength of the sector in the UK over the last 10-15 years has not been because of government actions of the last 10-15 years, but the actions taken successively over decades since the 1960s and before.

The global leaders in the creative industries and the cultural sector of the last twenty years tended to be graduates of an old art school generation. They had grown up with generous public support throughout the education system: a system at secondary school which was not hidebound by league tables or hierarchies of subjects; teachers who encouraged an openness and interaction with a range of experiences; an attitude to learning based on discovery and exploration – in particular in the arts and design, in drawing and making.

After that, young people weren’t discouraged from continuing with these skills. For working class kids in particular, taking a foundation course at art school was not unlike taking up an apprenticeship in engineering. The latter was a more obvious route into a job, but both were viable alternatives to the traditional academic route of A-levels and university. Meanwhile, the arts sector thrived from generous funding through the Arts Council and, in the 1970s in particular, local government.

Thatcher-era cuts

The Thatcherite era ushered in a period of cuts and a reversal of what was described by Richard Luce in 1987 as the ‘welfare-state mentality’. The Thatcher government was determined to introduce a more commercially-oriented mentality, which was less reliant on public funding – both within the subsidised arts sector, and indeed within higher education.

Despite cuts nationally and locally, the Greater London Council (GLC) – and indeed most of the other Metropolitan County Councils (MCCs) – was a generous patron of the arts until its demise in 1986. Indirectly, cultural practitioners also benefited hugely from the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which was introduced in 1983 to reduce the numbers of people claiming the dole, and which was wound up in 1991.

The biggest challenge to the health of the cultural sector began at the end of the 1980s: the abolition of the MCCs, the squeeze on national arts funding and local government finance, and in 1992 the abolition of polytechnics and, with them, a shift away from the ‘art school’ model in higher education. That’s partly why, under the leadership of Chris Smith, the various policy changes that took place under New Labour at the end of the 1990s were such a relief. Not just more funding – but leadership at national level that unlocked resources from local government and, in time, regional agencies.

But, despite Smith’s advocacy on behalf of the sector across government, the Labour administration continued to weaken the role of education: the tick-box culture had a significant impact on arts in schools, and the introduction of university fees in 1998 was simply a stepping stone in the transformation of what had been an extraordinarily open and democratic period of education and learning in the UK.

The future could be bleak

So, however Ed Vaizey describes the state of the arts today, he is describing the outcomes of previous policies – be it in arts funding, education, local government, regeneration, or welfare. What should be concerning him, and us, is what the state of the sector will be in ten years time. And here, it is in anything other than ‘rude health’.

To my mind, this is not just the result of cuts in public investment across the country and the rise in tuition fees. Arguably, and most importantly, the biggest threat to the health of the cultural sector is the lack of any kind of coherent cultural strategy – covering local government as well as arts funding, and addressing in particular the arts in further and higher education, as well as the arts in schools – which will have contributed towards the unravelling of what had become a global success story.

The sector might not yet be drowning but the cultural sector is swimming against a powerful tide, and the government seems happy to sit idly by, watching the water wash in.

This article was originally published on the Directional Thinking blog at directionalthinking.net/blog